So this is what passes for 'abuse'? (Feb. 13, 2001)

A group called the Association for Genital Integrity has

added its voice to the anti-circumcision chorus. It wants to have

the circumcision of boys banned on the grounds that the practice

violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Doubtless, the group

was encouraged by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, which two

weeks ago amended its policy with regard to circumcision at the

urging of organizations Intact and the Circumcision Information

Resource Centre. The commission once correctly held that

circumcision caused no damage to the penis and presented minimal

danger. But in a gesture of knee-jerk obeisance to political

correctness, the body now includes a statement flagging concern over

the routine surgery.


To the commission's credit, it refused to link male circumcision

with the abominable practice of female genital mutilation as the

anti-circumcisionists, including the Association for Genital

Integrity, would have liked. There can be no comparison between the

two surgeries. Female circumcision, which is practised on

adolescents, is a traumatic and medically dangerous procedure rooted

in the primitive belief that women should not enjoy sex. Male

circumcision, by contrast, is not, on balance, medically dangerous;

does not reduce male sexual sensation; and induces no trauma beyond

that which abuse groups invent.


Still, anti-circumcisionists are rejoicing at their partial victory

and so, perhaps, is McGill University bioethicist Margot Somerville

who not too long ago pronounced circumcision a form of "criminal

assault." All anti-circumcision proponents would like to see

legislation passed banning the practice.


What is it about the snippage of these few crepey millimetres of

skin that makes circumcision the magnet for such a shower of

ideological filings? In my own culturally formative years,

circumcision was hailed as man's best prophylactic bet against

infection, a sine qua non for priapic hygiene, and a sexual perk,

the tonsured penis supposedly offering more sensual pleasure to its

host and more aesthetic charm to its guests than any bacteria-ridden

rival possibly could. The Queen of England's sons, in fact, were

circumcised by London's chief mohel.


What distinguishes circumcision from the cornucopia of social

issues currently tumbling along the conveyor belt of public debate

is, clearly, the religious - that is to say -- the Jewish question.

Historically, circumcision has been practised widely in Africa,

South America and the Middle East. But in the Jewish faith, it is

also a non-negotiable rite of initiation. It represents in the flesh

the Jews' covenant with God, and as a symbol carries massive

psychological freight. This is not a secret fraternity handshake we

are talking about, but the passing of the cultural torch from one

generation to the next.


Unless and until scientists discover -- God forbid -- a causal link

between circumcision and cancer, you will not find many Jewish

parents comparison shopping for other opinions on the matter.

In a democracy, no social topic is too trivial to discuss privately

or publicly, it goes without saying. But let us focus for a moment

on what is fit for a discussion in the public forum with a view to

legislative change. In these cases, we are revisiting the entrenched

rights and liberties of citizens. The cost/benefit of pitting the

state against a 4,000-year-old religious tradition should weigh

heavily with any public figure or organization advocating its

abolition. Organizations such as Intact, the Circumcision

Information Resource Centre and -- how can I type this without

smirking -- the Association for Genital Integrity fecklessly

conflate the "abuse" of male circumcision with female genital

mutilation. We should not pay them the compliment of serious



It seems to me that once upon a time public debate around "abuse"

sprang from horror stories of children being beaten, starved or

caged in a cellar. Now public ire is aroused when a parent spanks

his own child. Humiliation used to mean African-Americans being

denied entry to white schools. Now it is applied to 15-year old

girls with small breasts. Pain used to be broken limbs and

floggings; now it is circumcision. If we cannot distinguish what is

lasting and significant from what is ephemeral and trivial, then we

banalize the experience of those who truly suffer in this world.

Anti-circumcision groups' main concern seems to be the procedure

occurring to the penis "without the consent of its owner," as one

anti-circ Web site puts it. What can we expect to see next in the

mini-kingdom of kvetch where the anti-circumcisionists presently

have the spotlight? The humiliation and shock of baptism without the

baby's consent? Perhaps baptism is not mutilation, but surely it can

be called psychic pain of a sort to leave a lasting impression? Some

of those Catholic babies look and sound mighty unhappy to me with

the holy water dribbling over their tiny unprotected heads. Infant

ear-piercing? The trauma of the first haircut?


If Intact and CIRC and the Association for Genital Integrity wish

to peddle their psychic anguish over their lost foreskins in the

public forum, let them do so with vigour on their Web sites, in

op-eds, or even, or especially, on Oprah. But unless they have

irrefutable proof that circumcision is a physical hazard, they have

no business harassing human rights commissions or taking this issue

to the courts. To paraphrase a famous Shalom Aleichem saying, I

would say to Intact and CIRC and the Association for Genital

Integrity, 'So if you have manhood issues, why should the Jews feel



© National Post 2001